Interview: Birdemic Writer-Directer James Nguyen
Speaking with Birdemic: Shock and Terror writer-director James Nguyen, the first thing that strikes you is that no one is more excited about his film than Mr. Nguyen. From our conversation it's clear that whatever the merits of his films, he's in love with the idea of making a movie and equally in enamored of being recognized as a filmmaker. While Birdemic hitting DVD and Blu ray on February 22 via Severin Films, the filmmaker with the idiosyncratic films is happily moving along with his next production: Birdemic 2: The Resurrection in 3D.
Mr. Nguyen was kind enough to speak to us about his work on the new film as well as the challenges of making an independent film shot in 3D.
Twitch: How does it feel to have Birdemic finally getting a DVD release this week?
JN: Oh, it feels great. It's going to be nationwide, in Best Buy stores--it's unbelievable.
Twitch: And you're in the middle of filming the sequel, right?
JN: Yes, there's a sequel called Birdemic 2: The Resurrection 3D. [It] has a great storyline--even as good or better than the original, that compels me to make it. You know, I have a small office in Hollywood, located near the corner of Sunset Blvd. and La Brea Ave. They call that corner "William Wilder Square," named after the great director Billy Wilder whose greatest film is Sunset Boulevard.
And do you know what the Spanish word "la brea" means in English?
Twitch: No, I don't.
JN: It means "the tar." You know that sticky oil?
JN: That's a hint for the sequel--"the tar." The La Brea Tar Pits, you know? I think it's going to be bigger than the original.
Twitch: How far along is the shoot at this point?
JN: We just shot about 10% of the production. We're shooting the easy scenes first before we take the big risk of shooting on the Jaws set on the Universal Studios backlot. So part of Birdemic 2 will be on the Universal Studios backlot on the Jaws set.
It's going to be fun. And it's shot in 3D, you know, and I'm the master of cinematography now. I taught myself to shoot 3D. It's a pain but it's fun. It's doing more stuff to get a clean shot so you can actually see the 3D--it's worth the pain and the trouble.
Twitch: What kind of prep did you do for the 3D shooting? Teaching yourself that process seems like it would be pretty daunting.
JN: You know, I'm kind of self-taught. I went to a few seminars, read a lot of stuff on the internet on how a 3D camera works. To film in 3D, you need two cameras, and for close and medium shots you build this rig called--you can buy one, I actually built one and bought one--called a 3D beam splitter. It's basically an enclosure with a beam splitter mirror placed at 45 degrees. You've got two cameras--one on top, one facing towards the enclosure--and the 3d image is created from those two images from those two cameras.
In post-production, you align those two images on the timeline where you get the 3D effect, then you export out the 3D movie. That's how a 3D movie gets made--the medium and the close shot. Just like James Cameron [and] Avatar. He used a 3D beam splitter, but some of it is handheld but it's still a 3D beam splitter for medium. For wide shots, you have two cameras placed side by side.
So the same technique that I'm doing for Birdemic 2: The Resurrection is the same as James Cameron and Avatar. The only difference is that James Cameron had, what was it, 3 or 400 million dollars, so he can add computers to automate and synchronize a lot of stuff like camera motion that I can't afford to do.
The 3D technology's been around for at least 50 years--what James Cameron did was he revolutionized it by adding the computer part of it by synchronizing the two cameras and the movement, so that--he made it better.
Twitch: How has doing all these elements by hand affected your shoot?
JN: Everything is slowed down when you shoot in 3D, because I don't have the $10 million rig to shoot like James Cameron and it has to be manual. So the motion--you're limited to the dolly going sideways, and I do this technique where I can go forward/backward. But 3D is not friendly to shot and duck--it will be very hard to edit in postproduction--the image will be too jittery up and down [from] the shoulder mount.
A better way and time-saving is to do it on a steadycam on a dolly [and] so on. So when you see a 3D movie, a lot of them are [using] smooth steadycam motion. You don't seem to many shot and duck films.
Twitch: So why deal with the hassle of shooting in 3D?
JN: I think one [reason] is that I like it. I like the 3D nature of it. But two, it's also the commercial aspect of it that would entice people to go see the sequel. And can you imagine those eagles and vultures coming at you in 3D--coming at the screen with [their] claws? I mean, that's awesome.
Twitch: Do you feel like between this film and Birdemic you've evolved as a director?
JN: I think that I got better--I mean, Birdemic: Shock and Terror is my third film, and I'm still learning. I get better as I go. I'm always learning something new and I think that every movie you make you become a more experienced, better filmmaker. I'm a much more experienced filmmaker now--not just from the technical and shooting.
The heart of a good movie--whether it's a $10,000 Birdemic or $100 million Hollywood-style--it's good casting. You got to have good casting. So I spent a lot of time casting and one of the reasons Birdemic became a hit movie is because of good casting. And despite all the imperfections, good casting, good story--a very seriously-felt story about man and his machines and all the harm it's doing planet Earth. The movie became a hit, you know?
So with Birdemic 2, I spent a lot of time casting. That's about 60% of a good and successful movie is the casting.
Twitch: Could you tell us a little about the cast this time around?
JN: There's a new character named Bill. He's a has-been auteur director and he's trying to get a second break with a Hollywood studio. And there's another called Gloria--she's a struggling actress who works as a waitress on Sunset Blvd. And it's sort of Bill and Gloria's story.
So, Bill is played by Lyle Drucker. If you liked the original Birdemic with Whitney Moore--Whitney Moore is really talented [and] plays Nathalie in the original one--you're going to like Lyle Drucker because he's kind of like Whitney Moore. The guy [has] good talent and the right attitude, and I know he's going to do great.
Some of the cast from Birdemic are coming back. You know, like Alan Bagh who plays Rob in the original--he's back. Rick Camp who plays the bird expert? He's back--he's in. And Tree Hugger's [Stephen Gustavson] back. The CEO--he's in. The kid who plays Tony [Colton Osborne]--he's in the sequel. So some members of the original cast will be back in the sequel.
Twitch: Do you think there's a chance of Birdemic 2 getting into Sundance where the first film couldn't?
JN: You know, we'll submit it. But I doubt that it will have a chance because Sundance--they have kind of what they're looking for. And Birdemic has become franchised now, very commercialized--they tend not to touch that.
But who knows? The guy who directed--back in the early 2000s--he directed Open Water [Chris Kentis]? He just made another one--a horror movie, and it got picked up at Sundance. So who knows, Birdemic got ignored at Sundance [and] Birdemic 2 is getting a lot of attention, so maybe they'll give it a second look.